In swift succession, boxes were taped together and slid across stainless steel tables to be filled with cans of salmon and bags of beans and fresh vegetables.
The Rev. Christopher Gudger-Raines placed a canister of oatmeal in each box before passing it down the assembly line. When asked what brought him to the Clark County Food Bank on Wednesday afternoon, Gudger-Raines replied: hope.
His Orchards church is closed. Schools are closed. Events are canceled. Workers are losing their jobs. People are wondering what is going to happen next and what their community will look like in the coming days and weeks amid a public health pandemic.
Gudger-Raines wanted to find hope within the hopelessness, and so he joined a small group of volunteers at the food bank to assemble emergency boxes of shelf-stable foods. It’s one of the ways people are stepping up and trying to do good as bad news abounds.
The food boxes will be delivered to low-income senior living facilities, given to the very people most vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19.
Seniors were noticeably absent from Wednesday’s group of volunteers. Alan Hamilton, president of the food bank, said retirees are typically the ones volunteering in the middle of the day. But times are different, and older adults in particular have to protect themselves against the novel coronavirus, which in Clark County has killed at least three people age 70 and older.
That means younger people — many newly available to volunteer because of closures — are helping to fill in gaps.
“It’s the least we can do,” said 16-year-old Delaney Humber.
She volunteered at the food bank with her mom, Kirsten Humber, a teacher at Sacajawea Elementary School. A lot of parents are asking Kirsten Humber for academic resources. She, however, sees the current situation as an opportunity for children to learn outside of the classroom. Plenty can be learned in the food bank’s warehouse as a group of people untethered from their normal commitments come together to help people in need.
Each weekday, the food bank allows a maximum of 20 people to help pack the boxes — a much smaller group than normal to provide for social distancing. The current COVID-19 emergency is the sort of scenario the food bank prepares for but never imagines will happen. It’s impacted the emergency food system. Some of the food bank’s distribution partners, small food pantries, may not have enough resources to continue, Hamilton said.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Vancouver, for instance, is working with a skeleton crew of volunteers.
“It’s a little bit chaotic, but we’re doing the best we can,” said Phil Gulling, president of the nonprofit food pantry. “It gives us all a great feeling, being able to serve people.”
On Tuesday, it gave out 140 food boxes using a conveyor belt system to reduce contact between volunteers and clients. While it means doing more work with fewer people, Gulling said clients are grateful for the support. And volunteers who are still able to are willing to help.
“I don’t think we’ve ever faced a challenge quite like this one,” Hamilton said.
Meals on Wheels People is another organization shaking up its normal procedures to keep providing meals to the area’s isolated seniors. The nonprofit is using a non-contact delivery method and other new precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Monday morning, employee Dean Scelza used his car key to ring someone’s doorbell, set a bag of frozen meals on a brick ledge and took a couple of steps back as he waited for someone to answer the door.
“We’ll get through it together,” Scelza tells clients.
Seniors are vulnerable to the virus and to loneliness as they quarantine in their homes. They’re also a major source of volunteers. Debra Bartnik, program assistant at Meals on Wheels People, said five volunteer drivers canceled the night of March 15 for Monday’s deliveries because they were concerned about the contagious virus. Other volunteers have taken on additional routes, but the demand for services is only going to go up.
“We couldn’t do this without all of them,” Bartnik said. “We need to keep everybody fed.”
Stan Freidberg, who’s been volunteering for about a year, said he sometimes is the only social connection his delivery clients have.
“They have to eat. They depend on us for nutrition, so here I am,” Freidberg said while loading up bags with food at the Luepke Senior Center.
Meals on Wheels’ congregant dining centers are closed. Those who normally visit a dining center are being offered delivered meals instead, which will increase volunteer demand.
Like all other sit-down restaurants, The Diner, the nonprofit’s restaurant, is also closed to dine-in patrons. But it’s offering takeout meals and will deliver food within a 10-mile radius. Janice Butzke, operations and program manager at Meals on Wheels People, said if people buy takeout from The Diner or gift cards to use later, they can help the current efforts to feed isolated seniors. The restaurant normally generates profit that goes back into the nonprofit’s mission.
“We kind of lost our financial support system because we’re closed,” Butzke said.
Changes at Share
Things change from week to week at Share, one of the largest local homeless service providers.
“It’s all changing and it’s all new, so we’re figuring this out as we go along,” said Jessica Lightheart, spokeswoman for Share.
With a shrunken volunteer base, there is worry about how programs will keep going. It’s a hard balance to strike, Lightheart said, because Share wants people to be safe but also relies on volunteers. Much focus has been on Share’s food programs, and the nonprofit intends to give out food as long as it can.
Despite the confusion and worry, there are bright moments.
One Share employee went to a grocery store and loaded up on peanut butter — a staple in homeless shelters — and received stares from other customers. But when she explained to people in line what she was doing with all of that peanut butter, one person handed her $10 and another $12.
Moments like that are happening around the county. Beaches Restaurant and Bar, closed due to the statewide shutdown of restaurants and bars, held a blood drive Thursday. Big Al’s Speciality Movers offered its fleet of trucks and drivers to the Clark County Food Bank to help deliver emergency food.
With complex and ever-changing needs arising from COVID-19, it can be difficult for someone wanting to make a difference to know where to start. The Community Foundation for Southwest Washington is asking local organizations and groups how they can best help.
In two days the community foundation raised more than $3 million from individuals and larger donors for its SW Washington COVID Response Fund.
“When you pool resources, you’re much more effective,” said Jennifer Rhoads, president of the community foundation.
The foundation is trying to respond as quickly as possible to needs as they arise, foregoing the typical formal application process. Right now, it’s closely monitoring the food system. As people get laid off, more may turn to emergency food sources. The next wave may be people who can’t pay for their housing. It’s about pivoting and redirecting funds where they’re most needed, Rhoads said.
“We literally don’t know what’s going to happen a week from now,” she said.
People can contribute to the response fund or directly to nonprofits assisting people in need. But Rhoads also envisions a simpler, more traditional way of helping the community in a crisis: Check on your neighbors.
“In this time, that’s some of the most effective help that can happen,” she said.
Nextdoor.com features a help map showing neighbors who are willing to lend a (sanitized) hand. Some neighborhoods on the social networking service are active with people offering to pick up groceries or prescriptions for people who can’t venture outside.
However, not all older or vulnerable people in need use that online platform. Instead, Rhoads recommends people knock on the door of a neighbor who could be struggling. Just take a few steps back before they open the door to ask, “How can I help you?”